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Saudi VLCC on mystery trip to Venezuela: Platts cFlow

London — A Saudi oil tanker appears to be traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to sanctions-embattled Venezuela either to deliver or pick up a cargo -- an almost unprecedented shipment between the two OPEC members.

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The VLCC Abqaiq, owned by Saudi state-owned tanker company Bahri, left the Red Sea port of Yanbu on January 20 and stopped for a day at the bunkering hub of Algeciras in Spain on January 30, before sailing towards Venezuela, according to S&P Global Platts trade flow software cFlow.

The vessel has declared its destination as Venezuela's main crude terminal Jose and is expected to arrive February 11, more than two weeks after the US announced sweeping sanctions January 27 on Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.

Abqaiq's current location is roughly 1,500 km east of Puerto Rico, according to satellite data automatically uploaded by the tanker.

Other Bahri tankers sailing across the Atlantic have their destinations listed as ports on the US Gulf Coast -- much more conventional voyages for Saudi tankers.

Officials at Bahri, the Saudi oil ministry and PDVSA were unavailable for comment.

Bahri tankers are exclusively used by state-owned Saudi Aramco to transport crude and products, according to shipping sources.

No Saudi-owned tanker has been tracked traveling to Venezuela in at least the last two years, cFlow data showed.

POSSIBLE SCENARIOS

Abqaiq's current draft, as recorded by cFlow, shows it could either partly loaded or empty. A VLCC can carry up to 2 million barrels of crude, condensate or refined products, but a fully laden VLCC cannot pass through the Suez Canal, as Abqaiq did after leaving Yanbu.

One scenario would be that the tanker is taking Saudi light crude or condensate to Jose.

Venezuela typically blends its tarry extra heavy crudes with lighter crude or naphtha to make it transportable, but its supplies of some 120,000 b/d of diluent from the US have been cut off by the sanctions on PDVSA. Saudi condensate exports could help to fill that gap.

It is also possible that the Abqaiq is seeking to load a crude cargo from Venezuela for export to another region.

Some market sources have said the tanker could be going to the Jose terminal to pick up Venezuelan crude and then deliver it to Asian refineries.

India's Reliance has previously used Bahri tankers to transport Venezuelan crude to its refineries on the west coast of India.

Reliance is a key buyer of Venezuelan crude, and shipments to India are expected to rise in the coming weeks due to PDVSA losing US as a customer.

A third possibility is that the destination of the tanker has been incorrectly entered by its crew.

-- Eklavya Gupte, eklavya.gupte@spglobal.com

-- Jack Jordan, jack.jordan@spglobal.com

-- Herman Wang, herman.wang@spglobal.com

-- Edited by James Burgess, newsdesk@spglobal.com